I wrote this preview for members of The Power Rank four days before the game. It went public the day after the game.
Predicting Super Bowl 50 is the ultimate battle between eyes and numbers.
By the eye test, Carolina looks like the clear favorite over Denver. The Panthers have a stellar 17-1 record, and they destroyed two of the NFL’s best teams, Seattle and Arizona, to make the Super Bowl.
The eye test also favors Carolina at the quarterback position. Cam Newton has had an Most Valuable Player caliber season, a touchdown machine at the pinnacle of his game.
In contrast, Denver QB Peyton Manning looks old. He missed a multitude of throws against New England in the AFC Championship game. His new label “game manager” shows how fast one of the game’s greats has succumbed to age.
However, a multitude of numbers go against Carolina, a 5.5 point favorite in the markets, in the Super Bowl. Let’s break down the top 5 numbers.
1. Carolina’s Strength of Schedule
The Panthers have a remarkable 17-1 record. However, it’s less impressive once you look at their competition.
They play in a weak NFC South division, which accounts for 6 games. Out of division, they drew the NFC East and the AFC South, two divisions in which the winner had 9 wins. That’s another 8 games.
Below, I’ve listed my NFL team rankings for members which combine a number of metrics based on points and yards per play. The teams in italics played the Panthers.
1. Seattle, 8.77.
2. Arizona, 7.24.
3. Cincinnati, 7.18.
4. Pittsburgh, 7.12.
5. Carolina, 6.90.
6. Denver, 5.84.
7. New England, 5.70.
8. Kansas City, 5.68.
9. Green Bay, 2.37.
10. Minnesota, 1.19.
11. New York Jets, 0.94.
12. Buffalo, -0.00.
13. Baltimore, -0.01.
14. Oakland, -0.22.
15. St. Louis, -0.71.
16. Houston, -0.85.
17. Chicago, -0.96.
18. Detroit, -1.00.
19. Philadelphia, -1.66.
20. Tampa Bay, -2.07.
21. Atlanta, -2.27.
22. San Diego, -2.27.
23. Washington, -2.44.
24. New York Giants, -3.22.
25. Dallas, -3.60.
26. Indianapolis, -3.76.
27. New Orleans, -4.21.
28. Jacksonville, -4.77.
29. Miami, -5.19.
30. San Francisco, -5.68.
31. Cleveland, -6.52.
32. Tennessee, -7.53.
Carolina played 3 above average teams this year. Yes, they just beat the top two teams in these rankings, but they went +8 in turnover margin in those games.
Speaking of which…
2. Turnover margin
Carolina is +20 in turnover margin for the season. As I mentioned in the previous section, +8 of this margin came in the last two games against their strongest competition.
Randomness plays a huge role in turnovers. In my research, I’ve found no variables that correlate with fumble rates in college football.
For NFL quarterbacks, completion percentage seems to predict interception rate. However, this shouldn’t help Carolina, as Cam Newton has a career 59.5% completion percentage, about the NFL average.
The randomness of turnovers implies that the Panthers’ +20 turnover margin this season has little to no ability to predict Carolina’s turnover margin in the Super Bowl against Denver.
3. Carolina’s Strength of Schedule, Part II
In case the previous section didn’t make my point about Carolina’s putrid strength of schedule, let’s look at the pass defenses Cam Newton faced this year. These rankings are based on my yards per pass attempt adjusted for strength of schedule.
1. Denver, 5.13.
2. Carolina, 5.49.
3. Seattle, 5.51.
4. Kansas City, 5.59.
5. Cincinnati, 5.60.
6. Houston, 5.78.
7. Green Bay, 5.89.
8. New England, 5.96.
9. Oakland, 6.01.
10. St. Louis, 6.06.
11. New York Jets, 6.06.
12. Minnesota, 6.10.
13. Pittsburgh, 6.15.
14. Philadelphia, 6.23.
15. Arizona, 6.26.
16. Baltimore, 6.28.
17. Buffalo, 6.56.
18. Chicago, 6.58.
19. Tampa Bay, 6.60.
20. Indianapolis, 6.68.
21. Detroit, 6.69.
22. Dallas, 6.72.
23. Washington, 6.84.
24. Atlanta, 6.85.
25. Tennessee, 6.85.
26. Jacksonville, 6.91.
27. San Francisco, 6.97.
28. San Diego, 7.02.
29. Miami, 7.15.
30. New York Giants, 7.24.
31. Cleveland, 7.26.
32. New Orleans, 7.88.
Carolina has faced 3 good pass defenses this year. Three!
I should note that Arizona’s pass defense would have made a fourth good pass defense before Carolina racked up 11.2 yards per attempt against them in the NFC championship game.
Carolina has thrown for almost 7 yards per attempt, 5th best in the NFL this season. However, strength of schedule adjustments drop Carolina to 11th in my pass offense rankings.
Carolina’s pass offense seems potent partially because of highlights. I’ve seen a multitude of picture perfect Cam Newton throws for touchdowns this year on ESPN.
These highlights represent a small sample size of throws. In the bigger picture, Newton’s numbers don’t look so good by a powerful efficiency metric: yards per pass attempt.
4. Match ups in passing
The pass defense rankings also suggest Carolina’s pass offense faces an uphill battle in the Super Bowl. Denver has the top ranked pass defense by my numbers, as corners Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib lead an elite secondary.
The below visual shows the match ups for the game by yards per pass attempt adjusted for schedule. (You can access the interactive version of these visuals by clicking here.) Better pass defenses appear further to the right, which facilitates comparisons. The offense or defense further to the right is predicted to have the advantage.
The visual shows that both defenses have a large advantage. Carolina also has a good secondary, as Josh Norman has blossomed into a shut down corner this season.
Because of these numbers (the rushing numbers also favor the defenses), the market total of 44 makes no sense to me. The NFL has averaged 45.5 points per game this year. With two tremendous defenses, you expect a lower total.
Part of this total comes from the eye test: Carolina has looked dominant the past two games against very good defenses. Still, the season long numbers suggest a low scoring game.
5. Cam Newton’s completion percentage
Cam Newton isn’t an accurate passer by NFL standards. He has completed 59.7% of his passes this season, right near his career average.
Even in his best game of the year against Arizona, Newton missed his fair share of throws. For example, he threw behind Corey Brown in the 2nd quarter. However, his receiver made a great adjustment, then beat the Arizona safety for a touchdown.
Ok, fine, I realize that Newton threw that pass a long way, and he should get a little slack for that. Still, he’s no where near Peyton Manning pre-2015 in accuracy.
Newton does present a significant threat with his legs. Carolina runs the zone read, which makes the defense defend against both the QB and RB in the running game. Denver must defend these plays well.
Eyes versus numbers.
I’ll admit it, the eye test makes me a bit queasy about taking Denver +5.5 over Carolina. My numbers predict a 1 point win for Carolina because of the weakness in the Denver offense.
And Carolina has looked damn good the last two weeks.
But numbers reveal the true picture of a team. Carolina has a stellar defense leading an average passer at quarterback. The offense should regress from their performance last week against Arizona, just like Iowa and Michigan State learned hard lessons in their bowl games this year.
It doesn’t always work to trust the numbers. There’s at least a 40% chance Carolina covers the 5.5 points. Numbers kept saying Kansas City would lose their next series in the MLB playoffs this fall. It never happened.
Nevertheless, numbers make a convincing argument against Carolina. The under looks particularly juicy.